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November 11, 2014

"It has been called the hardest test, of any kind, in the world."

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That would be the Knowledge of London.

Wrote Jody Rosen in a November 10 New York Times T Magazine article, "The examination to become a London cabby is possibly the most difficult test in the world — demanding years of study to memorize the labyrinthine city's 25,000 streets and any business or landmark on them."

Below, excerpts from her November 10 story.

Pictured above, clockwise from top left: London taxis from the '30s, '60s and the present day.

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[Tim McCabe] had spent the last three years of his life thinking about London's roads and landmarks, and how to navigate between them. In the process, he had logged more than 50,000 miles on motorbike and on foot, the equivalent of two circumnavigations of the Earth, nearly all within inner London’s dozen boroughs and the City of London financial district. He was studying to be a London taxi driver, devoting himself full-time to the challenge that would earn him a cabby’s "green badge" and put him behind the wheel of one of the city’s famous boxy black taxis.

Actually, "challenge" isn't quite the word for the trial a London cabby endures to gain his qualification. It has been called the hardest test, of any kind, in the world. Its rigors have been likened to those required to earn a degree in law or medicine. It is without question a unique intellectual, psychological and physical ordeal, demanding unnumbered thousands of hours of immersive study, as would-be cabbies undertake the task of committing to memory the entirety of London, and demonstrating that mastery through a progressively more difficult sequence of oral examinations — a process which, on average, takes four years to complete, and for some, much longer than that. The guidebook issued to prospective cabbies by London Taxi and Private Hire (LTPH), which oversees the test, summarizes the task like this:

To achieve the required standard to be licensed as an "All London" taxi driver you will need a thorough knowledge, primarily, of the area within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. You will need to know: all the streets; housing estates; parks and open spaces; government offices and departments; financial and commercial centres; diplomatic premises; town halls; registry offices; hospitals; places of worship; sports stadiums and leisure centres; airline offices; stations; hotels; clubs; theatres; cinemas; museums; art galleries; schools; colleges and universities; police stations and headquarters buildings; civil, criminal and coroner’s courts; prisons; and places of interest to tourists. In fact, anywhere a taxi passenger might ask to be taken.

If anything, this description understates the case. The six-mile radius from Charing Cross, the putative center-point of London marked by an equestrian statue of King Charles I, takes in some 25,000 streets. London cabbies need to know all of those streets, and how to drive them — the direction they run, which are one-way, which are dead ends, where to enter and exit traffic circles, and so on. But cabbies also need to know everything on the streets. Examiners may ask a would-be cabby to identify the location of any restaurant in London. Any pub, any shop, any landmark, no matter how small or obscure — all are fair game. Test-takers have been asked to name the whereabouts of flower stands, of laundromats, of commemorative plaques. One taxi driver told me that he was asked the location of a statue, just a foot tall, depicting two mice sharing a piece of cheese.

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It's on the facade of a building in Philpot Lane, on the corner of Eastcheap, not far from London Bridge [above and below].

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If you go to London Taxi and Private Hire headquarters, where the examinations are conducted, you will behold a grim bureaucratic scene, not much different than the one you might find in an office devoted to tax audits: nervous test-takers, dressed in suits, shuffling into one-on-one sessions with stone-faced examiners. But for more than a century, since the first green badge was issued to a hackney cabman piloting a horse-drawn carriage, the test has been known by a name that carries a whiff of the occult: the Knowledge of London.

The origins of the Knowledge are unclear — lost in the murk of Victorian municipal history. Some trace the test’s creation to the Great Exhibition of 1851, when London’s Crystal Palace played host to hundreds of thousands of visitors. These tourists, the story goes, inundated the city with complaints about the ineptitude of its cabmen, prompting authorities to institute a more demanding licensing process. The tale may be apocryphal, but it is certain that the Knowledge was in place by 1884: City records for that year contain a reference to 1,931 applicants for the "examination as to the 'knowledge' [of]... principal streets and squares and public buildings."

In 2014, in any case, the Knowledge is steeped in regimens and rituals that have been around as long as anyone can remember. Taxi-driver candidates — known as Knowledge boys and, increasingly today, Knowledge girls — are issued a copy of the so-called "Blue Book" [below].

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This guidebook contains a list of 320 "runs," trips from Point A to Point B: Manor House Station to Gibson Square, Jubilee Gardens to Royal London Hospital, Dryburgh Road to Vicarage Crescent, etc. The candidate embarks on the Knowledge by making these runs — that is, by physically going to Manor House Station and finding the shortest route that can be legally driven to Gibson Square, and then doing the same thing 319 more times, for the other Blue Book runs.

But the Knowledge is not simply a matter of way-finding. The key is a process called "pointing," studying the stuff on the streets: all those places "a taxi passenger might ask to be taken." Knowledge boys have developed a system of pointing that some call "satelliting," whereby the candidate travels in a quarter-mile radius around a run's starting and finishing points, poking around, identifying landmarks, making notes. By this method, the theory goes, a Knowledge student can commit to memory not just the streets but the streetscape — the curve of the road, the pharmacy on the corner, the mice nibbling on cheese in the architrave.

Decades ago, most Knowledge boys did their runs on bicycles. Now, nearly all test-takers buy or lease motorbikes. In 2014, there are thousands of men and women plying the city’s streets on two wheels, at all hours, in all weather, doing runs and gathering points. It’s a ubiquitous London sight: a Knowledge boy on a bike, with a map or notepad strapped to his Plexiglas windscreen. When the candidate has completed his 320 Blue Book runs — and his accompanying 640 quarter-mile radii point-gathering expeditions — he will have covered the whole of central London. At which time he takes a brief written exam, proceeds to the first stage of the oral examination process, and the test begins in earnest.

The testing takes place at the LTPH office in a series of "appearances," face-to-face encounters between Knowledge candidate and examiner. The test-taker is asked to "call a run": to identify the location of two points and to fluidly recite the shortest route between the points, naming all the streets along the way. A Knowledge boy is first given 56 days between appearances to study; then, as he progresses, 28 days, and 21. The questions, meanwhile, get harder, with candidates asked to locate more obscure points and to recite longer, more byzantine journeys across London's byways. Each appearance consists of four runs, and each run is scored according to an elaborate numerical system. Your total score earns you a letter grade, from AA to D. (AA's are exceedingly rare; D's aren’t.) Candidates who acquire too many bad grades are bumped backward — "red-lined" from appearances every 28 days back to every 56 days, or from 21 to 28. There is no such thing as "failing" the Knowledge. You can either quit, or persevere and pass: proceed all the way through to the end of your 21-day appearances, gaining sufficient points to earn your "req" — to meet the "required standard," and complete the test.

[London] is a town that bewilders even its lifelong residents. Londoners, writes Peter Ackroyd, are "a population lost in [their] own city." London's labyrinthine roadways are a symbol — and, perhaps, a cause — of the fatalism that hangs like a pea-soup fog over the Londoner's consciousness. Facing the dizzying infinitude of streets, your mind turns darkly to thoughts of finitude: to the time that is flying, the minutes you are running late for your doctor's appointment, the hours ticking by, never to be retrieved, on the proverbial Big Clock, the one even bigger than Big Ben. You can see it every day in Primrose Hill and Clapham, in Golders Green and Kentish Town, in Deptford and Dalston. A nervous man, an anxious woman, scanning the horizon for a recognizable landmark, searching for a street sign, silently wondering "Where am I?" — a geographical question that grades gloomily into an existential one.

Which is where the Knowledge comes in. It is a weird city's weird solution to the riddle of itself, a municipal training program whose graduates are both transit workers and Gnostics: chauffeurs taught by the government to know the unknowable.

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Should you really want to make a night of it, there are at the moment 223 comments on the Times story, many of which are quite entertaining.

November 11, 2014 at 07:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (26)

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